A Dormouse Wood

It is impossible not to be charmed by a Dormouse but these lovely little animals are in great trouble in Britain. An ecologist from the Kent Mammal Group visited us in the wood about a year ago to talk about managing the woodland for Dormice and advise on how to discover if there is already a population present.

When not hibernating, Dormice live at the tops of trees and are nocturnal and so it is very easy to have Dormice and just not realise it. We bought some mammal footprint tunnels to strap to branches because Dormice have distinctive footprints, but Covid got in the way this year and we never got round to putting them up.

However, even though we failed to get moving on that, we now do know that there are Dormice in the wood because one has made a nest in a bird box:

It is a very special thing to have Dormice because Britain’s population of them has declined by 51% since the millennium. They have been seriously affected by the loss and fragmentation of their woodlands and hedgerows but also by a change in woodland management practices. They need structurally diverse woodland with tree holes to nest in, dense understorey to feed in and hedgerows to disperse through. Coppicing is an important aspect of managing a wood for Dormice because it creates a mosaic of habitats and ensures that there is always Hazel of an age that will produce a good crop of nuts.

Dormice are legally protected and it is an offence to deliberately kill, capture or disturb one. You can put up Dormouse nest boxes and check them but, as soon as you find your first Dormouse, from then on only people with a licence can check the boxes. This is now the position we are in, of course, but we have a trail camera on the bird box to see if we can get some further photos whilst remaining within the law. Here is the best that we have got so far:

Back in the meadows, it is not uncommon to find dead Pygmy Shrews, abandoned by their predator because glands in their skin produce a foul tasing liquid. They are tiny things:

Their whiskers come off their snout at all angles for more effective foraging amongst the leaf litter for insects:

It has been an extraordinary autumn for Lesser Redpolls and hundreds have been moving through the meadows. One day this week, the Bird Ringers caught and ringed a satisfyingly round number of 100 of them here. More than 1,200 have been ringed recently up at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory.

The Crests are now starting to move as well and we have been seeing these diminutive birds hopping around the pine trees and hedgerows. They have also been flying into the Bird Ringers’ nets.

Although we had seen Redwing here before, for the first time one was caught and ringed here this week:

One day a Goosander came in off the sea and flew over the Bird Ringer’s head – this bird goes in as species number 85 on the list. It is quite a strange bird list for a meadow, actually – it doesn’t include some reasonably ordinary birds such as Nuthatch but it does have Gannet, Goosander and Goshawk.

Now that the wild pond is once again an open expanse of water, we hoped that it might attract down some passing waders and waterfowl. Sure enough, the dog found a small duck on the pond one morning but barked at it and scared it away before we could get a proper look. This was very annoying because we have only seen Mallards here before and this duck was smaller than that. Does the dog not realise that we wanted that bird on the list?

The reeds that we pulled out from the pond were stacked near the Badger sett to see if they cared to use them for bedding.

They did – we suspected they would. Even though the reeds can hardly be soft and hadn’t even had a chance to dry out, a lot have already disappeared underground.

I have been seeing night time images of this Fox in the middle below for several weeks. He catches my eye because he seems older, darker and more moth-eaten than the other Foxes.

And here he is again, on the left, showing that he only has half a tail:

Finally he appeared on the cameras by day and I got a chance to have a proper look at him. He does look like a venerable old boy who has had a hard life, bless his cotton socks. Hopefully he will find some peace here – he certainly seems very fond of the nightly peanuts.

The resident Foxes here all have tails that look pretty much the same colour as their bodies when viewed in the infrared lighting of the trail cameras. This Fox looking in the pear tree is demonstrating this point for me:

But one night this week a Fox with a very different colour tail came through:

What an absolutely amazing tail. I would love to see what this animal looks like by day but sadly this is the only time it has made an appearance.

Meanwhile, buckle up for this week’s photos from the raptor perch cam:

We have now launched the new coppicing season in the wood, putting some visiting family to good use.

A successful start with several coppice stools completed:

This last photo for today was taken through the car window on the way back from the wood. I would like to think that all these Seagulls are an indication that the just-ploughed soil is wonderfully full of worms and other invertebrates and that is lovely to see.

A Perch Revisited

A few years ago, we started rotavating a long, narrow strip of ground as part of a Turtle Dove conservation project. We also put up a perch in the hedgerow alongside this strip because Turtle Doves like to perch high when they are singing in that distinctive purring way that they do.

Several years on now and we are yet to see a Turtle Dove here and actually had all but forgotten about the perch. That is, until we noticed that Kestrels had started using it as a look-out post when scanning the meadow for rodents.

We decided to get a camera trained onto this perch and, over the past week, have been making tweaks to perfect its positioning. Ideally it doesn’t want to be pointing upwards where it is vulnerable to the rains, although that has meant that it has ended up at a lofty and somewhat inaccessible height.

However, it has been getting some good stuff. While we were away last week, the meadows were visited by a Short Eared Owl:

This week we have seen a Tawny Owl:

A pair of adult Kestrels have also been frequent users.

The camera captured a surprising sequence of these Kestrels mating although I am only including a couple of the photos here – there was condensation on the lens and the quality of the photos is not brilliant:

Apparently the day length at the moment, similar to that in the spring, can sometimes confuse the birds and trigger them to mate. I have to say that it was very accommodating of them to do this in front of the camera.

Sadly, there was fogging of the lens again when the male caught and ate a mouse on the perch:

Some other photos of the Kestrels on the perch this week:

Sparrowhawks are also using the perch, although often at dawn and dusk:

Here on the gate, as well, just as it is getting light:

The Bird Ringers achieved their biggest score yet in the meadows this week by ringing 98 birds in a morning. 74 of these were Chiffchaffs, 15 were Lesser Redpoll along with 8 Blackcaps and a Robin.

They also saw a Hobby hunting over the meadows, six Grey Wagtails fly in off the sea, a Sparrowhawk shoot past, a Meadow Pipit and several hundred Redpoll fly through. Needless to say, if it was us spending the morning in the meadows, we would have missed most of this.

One further thing that they saw were the Grey Partridge and they are now reinvigorated to attempt to catch and ring them and may be trying this next week if the weather stays calm.

It’s a busy time of the year for Jays:

They are collecting and burying acorns from the Holm Oaks to feed themselves through the winter. But they don’t always remember where they have put them. We have a large bag of topsoil left over from when the raised beds were constructed in the allotment.

Jays must have put acorns in there and not rediscovered them and now we have three little Holm Oaks growing:

I have now extracted these little trees and put them in pots to grow on and maybe they will get planted out properly in the meadows this time next year. Holm Oaks seem to love these coastal conditions.

There is also a Walnut tree growing in the middle of the second meadow and we presume that this is also the work of Jays because this new tree is at least 200m from another Walnut tree. It is growing so well that we have decided to leave it there for now.

I do so enjoy a muddy Badger at the end of a long, wet night’s work

And there is always a spot of socialising that goes on before bed:

I was worried about the male Badger, Scarface, this week. Four nights ago, we had a video of him unable to put any weight down on his left front paw. A Badger’s front paws are vital for digging up the worms that make up 70% of his diet. Here he is, hopping along on three legs:

Then, for the next two nights, he didn’t appear on the cameras at all which was unusual and concerning. However, it seems that all is now well because he was on the videos again last night with no sign of a limp. He even did some digging in front of the camera to prove that he is now better:

There are a few Wall Butterflies to be seen in the meadows, still fluttering around deep into October.

Several autumn jobs are outstanding and we now need to be getting on with these. One of them is to pull the reeds out of the wild pond to stop them falling in and rotting. They are very vigorous and, if we didn’t knock them back once a year like this, they would quickly choke the pond.

We bought the 4.5 acre extension to the wood in January this year and initially started exploring but disturbed a lot of Woodcock, who were resting up by day in its undergrowth. So we decided to wait until the end of winter when they would be gone before we had a proper look around. By then, of course, the country had gone into lockdown and we couldn’t visit the woods for several months. When we did finally return, we had somehow lost momentum. Therefore, here we are, now in mid October, and still we haven’t really properly got to know the wood that was bought nearly a year ago.

This weekend we spent a couple of hours hacking a new path into the vegetation using loppers and a heavy duty hedge cutter.

We plan to create several more leisurely-rambling routes over the next few weeks, although we are aware that the Woodcock will now be returning before too long and a tactical withdrawal may again be necessary.

This sky lantern had landed in the wood:

These lanterns cause injury and death to animals by ingestion and entanglement and they can also start fires because they use an open flame to float. It seems so obvious that these lanterns are a danger to wildlife and a threat to the natural environment and I cannot understand why they have not been made illegal. Perhaps I need to write to my MP.

These two Beech trees below, standing side-by-side, are telling a story of the effect of Squirrel damage:

The Beech Tree on the right, clothed in its beautiful autumn yellows, has actually gone into premature shut down because Squirrels have removed its bark in a complete ring around the trunk.

The vascular tissues that transport water and nutrients up from the roots sit just under the bark and have been removed along with the bark leaving the tree in extreme distress.

The green-leaved Beech has escaped the attentions of the Squirrels so far and remains perfectly healthy.

As we walked around the wood, we started the job of clearing out old bird nests from the boxes. Parasites will be attempting to over winter in the old nest material, hoping to jump onto a new host when the birds return next year.

Every box we came across had been used this year and contained an old nest. We need to put up still more boxes for next year, particularly in the new section of the wood.

This nest below was most probably Great Tit but a Rodent has been using it to eat acorns after the birds fledged.

This next one had a leafy Rodent nest on top of the mossy Bird nest but the Rodent was still in it.

I didn’t notice at the time, but now that I have downloaded the photo, I see that this little animal has the yellow fur and black whiskers of a Hazel Dormouse. I so wish that we had taken a closer look at it so that we knew for sure – I hadn’t considered this possibility because I thought that Dormice beds are made of strips of Honeysuckle bark rather than leaves. Thankfully we didn’t disturb this animal further.

The next time we visit the wood, we will tour round clearing the rest of the boxes out, this time alive to the possibility of Dormice. The moment we become certain that we have Dormice, all of this species’ legal protections will kick in.

It’s always nice to have an exciting photographic project on the go. Last week we were trying to get a good trail camera photo of Otters in Wales. This week we have been busy getting a camera to take good photos of the Kestrel perch. We have also now decided to train a camera on the bird box in the wood that had the query Dormouse within.

But there is another upcoming project for the wood and that is to capture the spectacle of Tawny Owls worming. It seems that this has already started – this Tawny Owl below, staring hard at the ground, is looking for worms to eat:

Over the winter, when the soil is soft, Tawnies are often to be found worming in the wood. We now need to redeploy some cameras across onto these worming duties and see if we can get some good photos. Definitely one of the things to look forward to as the winter rolls in.

Autumn Rains

We have been away for a week in West Wales and in our absence an awful lot of water has fallen from the skies. The ponds are now refilled and looking admirably good:

It rained a lot in Wales as well, turning the gentle, babbling rivers into terrifying, raging torrents. One of the aims of the holiday was to photograph Otters and this is the best we could achieve before the rivers got too scary:

Luckily, one of us had the foresight to tie the cameras to bits of vegetation higher on the bank with boot laces. But for that, all three cameras would have been lost as the rivers rose three feet in an hour.

Back in the meadows, it has been quite an exceptional autumn in terms of bird movements. Flocks of Siskin, Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll have been moving up and down the coast although it is not really known if they are coming in, going out or just moving around.

In the last week the bird ringers have caught over 50 Lesser Redpoll – a bird which we hadn’t seen here before and so has now gone onto the bird list at number 83.

They also caught some Swallows:

There have been lots of Crossbill flying over, including a group of about 15 landing briefly in one of the Scots Pines. They also spotted a male and female Stonechat in the hedgerow – now added as species number 84 on the list.

On the day we returned, they started the morning’s ringing in a most flamboyant style by catching a much sought-after rarity – a Yellow-Browed Warbler:

This was then followed up with a Firecrest, another exciting bird:

They caught 59 birds during the morning which included 27 Lesser Redpoll ands 5 Robin. Apparently a lot of Robins arrived in this part of the country last week.

Going through the photos taken by the trail cameras while we were away, there was this blurry image of an Owl:

Although we have occasionally seen a Short Eared Owl hunting over the meadows, the usual Owl that we see here is the Tawny. However, the wings of this bird above are much longer than a Tawny’s and so this is either a Short Eared or a Long Eared Owl, both of which also have that noticeable wing bar. Here is the wing of a Long Eared Owl that the Bird Ringer ringed some years ago:

But both the Bird Ringer and the Warden of the Bird Observatory, whose opinion was also sought, are leaning towards our bird being a Short Eared Owl and so, for now, we cannot jubilantly also add Long Eared Owl to our list. Maybe one day.

Although we see Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the wood, it is extremely rare to see them in the meadows:

This cat, looking like a small black Panther, continues to hunt and kill our small Mammals. This first photo looks like something out of ‘His Dark Materials’:

So much of the year is spent longing for more rain that we forget some of the downsides – soggy trail cameras with their lenses fogged with condensation. There were many photos of Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and, yes, even those Stonechats, that I am not including because the picture quality is too awful. However, the moist weather does mean that we all get to enjoy photos of wet cuddly Badger fur:

We always see a lot of the Rose Bedeguar Galls on the Wild Roses in the meadows. The Gall Wasp Diplolepis rosae causes a distortion of the end bud of the plant, turning it onto a mossy looking ball which contains the Wasp larvae. Usually, these galls are no larger than a conker, but we have a prize-winning one in the meadows this year:

Interestingly, this Gall Wasp is parthenogenetic, meaning that the embryos can develop from unfertilised cells. Therefore, fewer than 1% of these Wasps are males which sounds like something from futuristic science fiction.

The cameras in the wood were more protected from the elements by the trees and didn’t suffer the same drenching inflicted on those in the meadows and also in Wales.

Red Deer antlers are made of bone and begin growing in the spring. They can grow at a rate of an inch a day but, with the approach of autumn, the antlers stop growing and calcify in preparation for the rut. They are then shed at the end of winter. The only way to properly age a Red Deer is by looking at its teeth, the number of spikes on the antlers not being a reliable indication. However, to me, this male has all the feel of being a young animal.

While we have been away, the work on the stone groynes down on the beach has been progressing but still appears far from finished. Today, there is yet another barge offshore, loaded with granite and awaiting a favourable tide to offload its cargo onto the beach.

What an enormous amount of work and expense it has been. As we approach winter and storms continue to batter the coast, it will be interesting to see how effective these new groynes prove to be.

Redstarts and Siskins

Redstarts are birds that breed in the wooded west and north of Britain. Over the years, however, we do occasionally see one here in the autumn as they migrate through on their way to Africa for the winter. This week, two Redstarts made the Bird Ringers’ day as they flew together into the ringing nets – both were females born this year. That red tail has a pair of distinctive non-red feathers in the middle:

I have included photos of both birds because it was so exciting, but they were pretty similar-looking and probably just one photo would really have been sufficient. It was the first time that a Redstart has been ringed here.

One of these birds was subsequently down having a drink at the baking tray pond, now with its new leg ring in place:

A Siskin is another bird mainly of the conifer woods found in the west and north of Britain, although there are a lot of Siskins around here at the moment. The UK has a population of resident Siskins but their numbers are augmented by birds coming across for the winter from colder parts of Europe.

There have been flocks of these birds flying over the meadows this last couple of weeks and we don’t know if they are British residents or early-arrived migrants. The Bird Ringers have been trying to catch these Siskins – generally unsuccessfully, although they did catch a second one this week, a young male:

There are a lot of Silver Birch trees in the wood and we saw a flock of Siskin there as well – these birds love to eat Birch seed.

They have small, delicate feet for hanging onto the thinnest twigs at the top of Birch and Alder trees to get at the seed. In contrast, Foxes by no means have feet adapted for tree climbing, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them climbing up into the pear tree to get at the fruit. Here is a Fox in the tree:

The camera below is trained onto the upper left hand bough where there are a few remaining pears:

This is what we got:

The pears have more or less gone now and this entertainment is at an end. Before the camera was removed though, it did capture the fact that we have had a lovely amount of rain in the last couple of days, coming at the end of a very dry September:

Now that the meadows are cut, Kestrels are perched up in the hedgerows pretty much throughout the day. No doubt they can see their small mammal and reptile prey much more easily now that the vegetation is short.

One of the things I most dislike about winter is how early it gets dark. Although another thing is that it is a time of Fox dispersal and I have to steel myself to see Foxes in terrible states come past the cameras, never stopping long enough for me to try to help. One such poor, mangey animal was around one day this week, an early example of what is to come:

Absolutely heartbreaking. I can only hope that someone notices him and helps him when he arrives at his destination, wherever that may be.

Along one side of the allotment, there is a Passion fruit plant romping away untidily along the fence.

It shouldn’t be there, really, because it is not a British native plant. It is also not the variety that produces the delicious Passion fruits – that plant is tender and would need to be in a greenhouse. The flowers of this plant are exotic and beautiful and much visited by Bees but its orange fruits are cotton woolly and nothing seems to eat them.

Well, that is what I thought until I saw this in the allotment:

A small mammal has tunnelled under the raised bed and seems to be eating the Passion fruits. We put a camera on the hole and saw that there was a little Mouse that was making use of the otherwise unloved resource.

Other photos from the meadows this week:

We have been seeing a lot of this black cat in the meadows and unfortunately it seems to be a very successful hunter. I would much rather these small mammals went to Kestrels and Owls, animals that do not have a bowl of kitty food waiting for them in a bowl back home:

There is also a black and white cat that often appears on the cameras in the woods:

My daughters would be full of loud admiration at what a lovely Cat this is. Well, I’m afraid that I have to disagree with them on this:

A classic joke from my youth ran along the lines of ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman go into a pub….’ These jokes are wholly unacceptable in today’s world, but this photo below reminded me of them:

I have been seeing this Fox on the cameras around the wood over the summer. He is quite sturdy and distinctive-looking and very different from the willowy Foxes seen in the meadows:

In fact, I am fairly sure that I recognise him as this cub from last year:

It is lovely to see him all grown up and looking so healthy.

I finish today with a Squirrel. There seem to be so many Grey Squirrels in the wood. We had trouble earlier in the year with them stripping bark off several beautiful Beech trees and damaging them such that they will now die. This country needs to plant more trees to help mitigate the climate change emergency that we face, but booming Grey Squirrel populations stripping the bark and killing Oak, Beech and other broad leaved trees are a big problem.

One suggestion on the table is that we humans start eating Grey Squirrels to help control them. Another interesting observation is that, in areas where Pine Martens have been reintroduced, they seem to be eating the Grey Squirrels (and not our native Reds) so that we don’t have to. UK Squirrel Accord is on year three of a five year £1.1 million project to investigate if contraceptives can be given to Grey Squirrels using a species-specific dispenser. I have been reading up on this project this week and getting quite excited about it – it seems the perfect solution if they can get it to work. However, it will be a few years before we can feed contraceptives to our Grey Squirrels and, since we are not prepared to kill them, we are just going to have to put up with them killing our trees for now.

A Penchant for Pears

There was a glorious spell of weather at the beginning of the week and we pushed on and have now triumphantly completed this year’s cutting of the meadows. It got to a point in autumn last year when it started raining and never seemed to stop again for long enough to finish the cutting that we had planned. So we wanted to take advantage of this sunshine now when the newly cut, dry grasses effortlessly fly back into the collecting hopper and don’t all clog and stick.

We have left selected areas uncut in the much larger second meadow to provide cover for the Grey Partridge and leave seed heads for Linnets and Goldfinch. I always find it difficult photographing the second meadow because its curves seem to foreshorten and distort. In the photo below it does look as if we have left most of it uncut but this is not the case.

Perhaps this next photo better shows how much cutting has been done in there:

The Grey Partridge are still visiting the strip after the meadow has been cut – pleased we haven’t scared them away. Back in June, Grey Partridge were declared extinct in Switzerland, where once they had been common. They have suffered a terrifying decline in the UK too and we need to try really hard to look after them.

A Kestrel in the hedgerows watching for rodents fleeing from the tractor:

We were sitting out in the meadows having a restorative cup of tea and were treated to a Spitfire display, barrel-rolling over our heads.

Planes were painted with these invasion stripes especially for D-Day so that they were recognisably Allied planes and didn’t get shot down by friendly fire. Spitfires were single-seater fighters but this particular plane that we often see above us is a training plane which also takes a passenger:

I have been greatly enjoying photographing the Foxes and their penchant for Pears.

Then, we saw this photo below. In the top left hand corner, you can see that the Fox has actually climbed up into the tree:

The next night we hauled a second camera into action in case the Fox did it again:

This second camera took a whole series of photos of Foxes clambering around in the tree:

I think that whenever I see a pear from now on I will think of our tree climbing Foxes.

It is not the one-eyed vixen climbing in the pear tree, but can I once again ask you to admire how good she is looking these days and how her tail is bushing out:

Here she was earlier in the summer before we treated her for mange:

As the autumn bird migration continues, the Bird Ringers have been setting their nets up and ringing in the meadows. They’ve seen small flocks of Siskins flying around and have made several attempts to catch them by quickly putting up nets where they thought they might have been landing and playing their calls to lure them in. But the Siskins have always managed to avoid going into the net. That is, until this week, when an adult male was caught.

What a beautiful and colourful bird. It is the first time that one has been ringed here.

We are very accustomed to Magpies around these parts – we have far too many of them in my view. Once again, we were having a cup of tea in the meadows and there was a cacophony of Magpie rattling nearby that we ignored because we are well used to it. However, eventually it drew our attention because it was so insistent and we saw that there was a lynching going on. I took a couple of photos before I realised that I was actually witnessing attempted murder and moved in to break it up. One Magpie was pinned to the ground and the other was stabbing it viciously with its beak:

The Magpie on the ground couldn’t fly away immediately due to injury or just shock, but eventually it did. Magpies murdering their own. The more I get to know about them, the less I find to like.

What about the eye on this little chap below? Most odd looking.

This is a Dunnock undergoing a really unfortunate head feather moult. I checked with the Bird Ringer who confirmed that this was nothing to worry about.

This, however, is not good news. This Chaffinch has bumble foot:

The Butterfly season is nearing its close, but I was pleased to see these mating Common Blues this week:

The distinctive shape of a Comma Butterfly and the white mark from whence it got its name:

The UK has only 59 species of resident and regular migrant Butterflies. Italy, with the highest number of Butterfly species in Europe, has 252. But excitement is building amongst British Butterfly enthusiasts for the expected imminent arrival of our 60th species, the Southern Small White. Until recently, this Butterfly was only found in south-eastern Europe but it has been spreading towards the UK at 100km a year and was recorded in Calais in 2019. That is just across the Channel, only a few kilometres from here, and so could it already be with us by now? It has not yet been seen but then it is difficult to distinguish from the other British white Butterflies as this Butterfly Conservation photo shows:

I don’t usually pay much attention to white Butterflies but I am going to start doing so now. The larval food plant is wild Candytuft or related garden flowers.

Moving to the wood, I was delighted to see a juvenile Bullfinch:

Sparrowhawks and Buzzards continue to frequently visit the ponds in the wood. There is quite a size disparity between these two birds of prey. The following two photos are cropped exactly the same amount:

One of our sons and his girlfriend visited this weekend and wanted to make cider. The Foxes might have a Penchant for Pears but they appear to have no Appetite for Apples which are lying on the ground uneaten. Therefore, it was with a completely clear conscience that we picked what was left of the eaters on the trees and started the process of fermenting it into an alcoholic beverage:

While we were at it, we also picked Sloes from the Blackthorn in the hedgerows. Whilst Hawthorn berries are quickly eaten from the trees by the birds, the very bitter Sloes are often left to wither untouched. Therefore, we did not feel guilty about harvesting a few of these as well.

The birds might find these Sloes bitter, but they certainly add a most delicious flavour when added, along with some sugar, to gin and left to infuse for several months. We will look forward to tasting that next year.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

It looks like it is going to be a good year for sloes. I’m afraid that we have developed a bit of a taste for sloe gin since we have been here – very sweet but oh so very delicious – and we are certainly going to be making some again this autumn.

Back in the spring, there were several days of icily freezing north-easterly winds which hit our hedgerows hard just as the Hawthorn was coming into leaf. Along the entire 300m run of hedgerow along the western boundary, the leaves shrivelled and browned. As a result, the Hawthorn had no blossom and consequently now has no berries. Birds love Hawthorn berries but sadly our crop of them is seriously depleted this year. There are, however, still a few Hawthorns along the cliff that were more sheltered from those terrible winds and do now have some berries that we can offer them:

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. What a wonderfully evocative line from John Keat’s poem ‘To Autumn’. We don’t see many mists here with our winds but on a glorious autumnal day this week we visited Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, which is on the outskirts of Faversham, just the other side of Canterbury. We had been meaning to go for ages:

In their 150 acres of orchard, they grow 2,300 different varieties of apple, 550 of pear, 350 of plum and 320 of cherry.

September is a great month to go when the fruit is heavy on the trees but, of course, it wasn’t the best year to visit – they are not running their guided tours for Covid-19 reasons and so we walked a self-guided route round the orchards and admired all the wonderful fruit. But it would have been nice to learn a bit more about all the different varieties and get to taste them too and so we will try again next year.

I really liked the look of the variety called ‘Josephine’ shown below. The lacework pattern of russeting is so beautiful and they look very tempting:

Brogdale has a weather station – below is the Stevenson screen which is a shelter for wet and dry bulb thermometers to measure air temperature and humidity. It is famous in meteorological circles because it measured the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK – 38.5 degrees on 10th August 2003.

Back in the meadows, the weather has been calm for a while and no further pears have fallen from the trees. That hasn’t stopped the Foxes staring longingly upwards hoping for one to drop:

We have been starting about our autumn jobs. The first meadow is now almost cut. As usual, we are leaving several artistic areas uncut on a rotational basis so that we don’t wipe out insect populations such as Large Skipper Butterflies whose caterpillars will be living within the grass blades, only venturing out to feed.

I started to pull reeds out of the pond but could only do the ones that were standing in the small amount of water that there is in there currently. Otherwise they just snapped off rather than coming out with their roots. I will revisit this job once we have had some more rain.

I made a pile of the pulled reeds close to the Badger sett in case they wanted to take them as bedding.

Of course they did. Here is the male, Scarface, taking some reeds off to his bed:

We also scythed some long grasses and helpfully put them by a Badger hole. The next morning the pile had gone:

It is now a few weeks since I have seen all seven Badgers together, although there are often six. It is quite difficult to tell, but I don’t think that one of these Badgers below is Scarface, in which case I am happy that we haven’t lost one because he is often to be seen on his own elsewhere:

I took the photo below of the Wasp Spider on Tuesday, 9th September and, ever since we discovered her on 4th August, she has been sitting here on her web. For most of August she was kept very busy catching, wrapping and eating prey, but then the flowers around the web went to seed and were no longer visited by insects. Since then things have been much quieter for her.

The day after I took the photo, she was gone. I read that Wasp Spiders mate in July and spend August feeding up as eggs are produced within her. Then, a month after mating, she leaves the web and makes a cocoon containing her eggs which hangs on nearby foliage. It did not say, but I presume that she stays by the cocoon, protecting it, because she has not returned to the web and she will then die over the winter. Although we searched in the vicinity of the web, we couldn’t find her but the grass is not going to be cut in that area so her cocoon will be safe even if we don’t know exactly where it is.

Now that autumn is here, the Ivy is just starting to come into flower in the hedgerows of the meadows. This is something that you can actually hear more than you can see – the buzzing coming from these hedgerows in the sunshine is amazing:

Autumn is also the time when we see Migrant Hawker Dragonflies in the meadows. This is a common Dragonfly in wetter areas of southern Britain but its numbers are boosted by migrants coming in from continental Europe in the autumn and it is these migrants that we see here.

Recently we have been watching a pair of Stock Doves successfully raise a single young bird in a Kestrel box. After it fledged, they immediately laid two more eggs, but they now seem to have had a rethink about having another brood this year and have abandoned the eggs:

We are no longer holding out any hope at all that Kestrels will ever use this box and we would be delighted to welcome the Doves back again next year should they wish to return and raise another family. Meanwhile, we might as well keep the camera in position in the box to see if anything else interesting happens over the winter.

The autumn bird migration is in full swing here. Chiffchaffs in particular are moving through right now and the Bird Ringers were working in the meadows three mornings this week, catching and ringing well over a hundred birds on their way to Africa.

Here is a Chiffchaff, soon to set off on its long and perilous journey to another continent and now wearing a shiny anklet which can be used to find out where and when it was ringed should it be caught again as it goes on its way.

Some other photos from the meadows this week:

The headlines from the wood this week is that we saw a Hare in the field that borders the wood. I don’t have a photograph to support this sighting but there was no doubting what it was. This was very exciting because we hadn’t seen a Hare there before, although our woodland neighbours have.

Other goings-on in the wood:

Finally, back to the meadows, where the barge arrived back from Falmouth this week, carrying another load of granite to build the new groynes on the beach. The barge itself has no motor and has been towed to Cornwall and back:

After the barge had discharged this second load of granite, I went down to see how the beach is getting on. The answer is that it is currently all a bit of a mess – the groyne in the foreground below is perhaps now completed but the other two are still just piles and look like they might yet need more stone.

We will await another delivery of Cornish stone next week.

Today we are flying the Welsh Dragon in memory of my much-loved and much-missed mother whose birthday would have been tomorrow. Although she moved to England when she married, most of her heart remained in Wales.

Bank Holiday Entertainment

Dover Council laid on some August Bank Holiday entertainment for us this week with the arrival of a work barge, loaded with granite. We saw it when it was still offshore and wondered what it was:

It was a time of full moon and the barge was pushed to the shore on the high spring tide in the late morning and started unloading its boulders onto the beach.

As the tide retreated in the mid afternoon, so did the barge and it moored up just offshore. Then, at the next high tide shortly before midnight, it was back at the beach unloading the rest of the stone and keeping the inhabitants of this part of Walmer awake late into the night with its clanking and crashing.

The next morning, the barge had gone but there were two piles of stone on the shore:

This granite has come from Cornwall – probably Carnsew Quarry near Falmouth – and we presume the barge is now being towed back there to pick up some more. We have a small sliver of the rock that had sheared off as the stones crashed together:

Dover Council are paying £831k to construct three rock groynes here at Walmer and one a bit further north at Sandown Castle to stop the beach being eroded and carried north at the rate that it has been in recent years.

We are now expecting the return of the barge with another load of Cornish granite before too long to finish what it has started. In the meantime, heavy machinery is still at work on the beach, repositioning the boulders and filling the gaps with smaller rocks. Once the groynes are finished, they might provide habitat for Rock Pipits, Purple Sandpipers and other exciting birds as well as helping with the beach erosion.

The recent storms caused fruit to fall from the fruit trees in the orchard. One week on and we noticed that the apples were still lying, gently rotting, on the ground:

However, all the fallen pears had disappeared. We pulled a few more pears from the tree down onto the ground below and put a camera on them to see who is so partial to our pears whilst ignoring the apples:

The camera also caught them eating pears off the tree:

I don’t blame them – they are ever so nice.

In the wood, the recent rains provided a little taster of a winter phenomenon there that I eagerly await – the Tawny Owls nightly worming. The Owl’s posture is very distinctive, staring intently down at the ground just in front of its feet.

Hopefully I will get better photos for you when the ground softens more as autumn gets properly into its stride.

Before we bought the wood, there was a big shoot there in the winters and we have quite a few Pheasants around still which, I think, are a legacy from that time. Astoundingly, 43 million Pheasants are released into the British countryside by the shooting industry every year. But, although we have seen courtship behaviour amongst the adult birds, we hadn’t ever seen any juveniles as evidence that they were successfully breeding in the wild. However, I think now we have because this bird below must be a young bird, with its short tail feathers:

In the meadows, this Fox is being very brave:

It is an exciting time of year for the Bird Ringers with a lot of Birds on the move and they have been ringing in the meadows a couple of times this week. On Friday they caught a Spotted Flycatcher:

This Bird was born this year and is now migrating to south of the Sahara. It has a very distinctive beak shape with coarse whiskers on either side:

Also, the very tip of the top beak turns down:

This species has suffered a devastating 89% population decline in the UK between 1967 and 2010 and I had actually never seen one before. Spotted Flycatcher has now entered the meadows bird list at number 80. But Friday was a great day and there was more to come. As the Bird Ringers were sitting in the meadows, they heard and saw two Crossbills fly overhead (Species 81) and then a Hobby (Species 82).

Earlier in the week they had caught a second Sedge Warbler and look what a beauty it is:

Also a lovely variety of other Warblers:

Some other photos from around the meadows this week:

I sent my Moth records up to the end of August in to the County Moth Recorder. There were a very large number of records and he queried nine of them that stood out to him as odd or unusual. I was quite pleased with that but he told me not to be disheartened which seems to imply that he thought I might be. Of the nine queries, I didn’t have photos to support two of the records so they are ignored. I sent him photos for his remaining seven queries and five of these were found to be misidentified by me. However, I did get two correct!

My mothing enthusiasm continues undaunted by all of this – I have learnt so much this summer. This is a beautiful Moth, Campion, that I caught in the week, with its purple undertones. I hadn’t seen one of these before.

I finish today with a Spitfire. In normal summers these aeroplanes are a very familiar sight over the meadows. They do acrobatics over our heads several times a day at weekends as they fly along the white cliffs, carrying fare-paying passengers in a two-seater training version of the plane. This summer, unusual in every possible way, we have scarcely seen them. However, one flew over this week and it was so lovely to see it and hear that distinctive 1940s engine again.

The Summer Fades

The weather forecast foretold wind gusts of up to 55mph and heavy rainfall for most of Tuesday as we waited for Storm Francis to make his way over the top of us. The ponds need rainwater so badly that we pulled out all the stops to gather as much of the promised water as possible to boost the flagging water levels.

We also worried about the orchard, laden with heavy fruit as the trees are at this time of year.

We decided to do an emergency harvest of some of the fruit to lighten the branches and make them less vulnerable to wind damage.

There was then an awful lot of processing to do to get this lot into the freezer. In the event, Francis had somewhat blown himself out by the time he got to us, although we did get a precious 8mm of rain. Hurricane Laura, that has battered Louisiana this week, makes Francis seem minor. But it was Francis’ timing that was so concerning, coming as he did when summer was still in full swing.

Then, on Thursday and Friday there has been another glorious 14mm of rain.

Thunder rumbled loudly and atmospherically around the meadows and then suddenly the sky was filled with Swallows, riding the wave of air displaced by the approaching weather system. A twister started to form out to sea although it didn’t touch ground:

With all the rain that has fallen from the skies this week, the ponds are still a long way from looking great but they are certainly improved.

This Sparrowhawk below has chains of hearts rather than barring on its upper chest indicating that it is a juvenile:

These next two images might well be the same bird in different lights:

This is another Sparrowhawk below but it is stretching my Sparrowhawk ID skills. I think it is a different juvenile with those love hearts on its chest again and it somehow looks a bit cuddlier than your normal Sparrowhawk:

But I am certain that this next bird is an adult male Sparrowhawk with his rufous sides and cheeks:

The pair of Grey Partridge visit the strip every day. This is the male with his rufous head and faint patch of red skin behind his eye. That red would have been very bright earlier on in the summer:

Females usually have a pale supercilium – a stripe above their eyes – although some don’t. Ours here doesn’t but I am wondering if perhaps it is actually a juvenile going around with its Dad. There is much higher mortality of adult females since they are more exposed to predators such as Foxes whilst sitting on the nest in a hedgerow.

We have been seeing Kestrels perched high in the hedgerows, watching for rodents:

We continue to have a Rat visiting the seed cages up on the strip…

…and I wonder if this is what this Kestrel was after:

A quick bit of research on the internet suggests that Kestrels do prefer mouse-sized rodents but there were several references to them also occasionally taking Rats.

It is a couple of weeks since I have seen all seven Badgers together. However, there are six of them here a few nights ago and I don’t think any of these is the heftier adult male, Scarface. I have definitely seen him on other cameras and so that would mean that all Badgers are still accounted for. The little cub is front right.

Seventy percent of a Badger’s diet would normally be Worms, but at times of drought such as now, the ground is hard and the Worms have retreated down deep. The Badgers need to find alternative sources of food until the rains come again and one of the things they do is to dig up Wasp nests and eat the grubs, being able to smell exactly when the most productive time is to do this. We found such an attacked nest that had been built in an old vole hole:

A couple of Wasps were still hanging around in the hole, surrounded by the sorry destruction of their nest:

Another animal that would have liked to have found this Wasp nest flew low across the meadows on Friday morning, with a pair of Crows in hot pursuit:

This is a new species for the meadow – a Honey Buzzard. Its main source of food are the nests, larvae, pupae and adults of social insects – including Wasps, Bees, Bumble Bees and Hornets. It finds a nest by following the insects back to it and then digs the nest out with its feet. It can dig down as deep as 40cm. This is a really unusual diet for a bird and it is adapted for it, having small, dense feathers on its face to reduce stings, powerful feet for digging and slit-like nostrils to stop soil clogging.

In the wood, some of the English Oaks have an alarming number of these galls. In fact on a few of the trees, every one of its acorns seemed to have been transformed:

This knopper gall is caused by the Gall Wasp Andricus quercuscalicus which arrived naturally in Britain in the 1960s and caused much concern for a while because of the widespread destruction of acorns. However, some years are much worse than others and there have always been enough acorns surviving intact so that it has not turned out to be the problem that was at first thought.

These galled acorns fall to the ground and the Wasp emerges next spring. The Knopper Gall Wasps have a complicated two-phase life cycle – they have an asexual all-female reproductive year, making these galls on English Oak, but the next year they will have a sexual phase and make small conical galls on the catkins of Turkey Oaks.

The same Oaks that had the knopper galls, also had these galls below. These are silk button spangle galls caused by another Gall Wasp, Neuroterus numismalis. These spangle galls are the asexual phase for this Wasp. The Wasp has a sexual phase as well, which produces different looking galls also on English Oaks.

The Ivy is just beginning to flower in the wood and the Ivy Bees have arrived, in beautifully-timed choreography:

Back in the meadows, the Ivy is not yet in flower and Ivy Bees aren’t to be seen but we are expecting hundreds of thousands of them shortly. They are a harbinger of autumn here.

The one-eyed vixen is now almost looking like a normal, healthy Fox. The seven-day treatment with Psorinum worked a treat:

The Stock Dove chick fledged on 24th August and we found the box empty. What a success and what a relief:

However, on 27th, there was this:

It looks like we are going to go through the suspense of observing another chick grow up in the box. It seems very late in the year to be starting again – September is just round the corner after all. We have also been seeing Stock Dove courtship on the trail cameras:

Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs are starting to move. The Bird Ringer was in the meadows targeting them this week:

There has been a definite nip in the air these last few days, suggesting the end of the tired old summer and the ushering in of an exciting, fresh new season. Autumn brings with it the bird migration, the cutting of the meadows and the starting of this year’s coppicing in the wood and there is much to look forward to.

Climate Canaries

On the beach below the meadows, the action of the sea moves the pebbles inexorably northwards with the on-going process of long-shore drift. Every year, large trucks arrive and drive along the beach moving it all south again. The dog really objects to these trucks and sees it as a personal responsibility to race pointlessly up and down the meadows to chase them off. There is so little water in the ponds at the moment that a cooling dip afterwards turns her into this objectionable mud monster.

This annual beach-moving seems a very costly exercise, both in money and in terms of the environment. Surely there is a better solution.

On these warm August nights, I have been getting some good catches of Moths. I only run the Moth trap if I know I’ve got a few spare hours the next day to work through and identify them all.

Jersey Tigers were rare immigrants until recently. But I know from FaceBook Moth groups that I follow that people have been getting large numbers of these Moths in their traps this year and I had eleven one night this week.

A few years ago, one of our sons visited Butterfly Valley on the Greek island of Rhodes where countless thousands of these Jersey Tiger Moths are to be found. I don’t think he took a photo while he was there and so here is one from the internet:

Moth and Butterfly numbers respond rapidly to changes in climate and other effects on their habitats and so it feels really important to observe and record them – they are like the Canaries that the coal miners took down the mines to quickly detect poisonous gases.

A really quite large area of this yellow umbellifer appeared in the first meadow this year:

We realised that we hadn’t seen this plant before and didn’t know what it was and so took some back to identify:

It’s good that we did because it turns out to be Wild Parsnip. This is an unwelcome development because the sap of this plant causes rashes to the skin if it is exposed to sunlight after contact.

Wild Parsnip is a biennial which means that, having now set seed, all these plants will die at the end of the summer. If we were going to control this plant, it was urgent to act quickly and ensure that none of these seeds reached the soil and be given a chance to germinate. In the sweltering temperatures of this week, we ventured out in long trousers, long sleeves and gloves to cut out and bag up all of the plants and get them off site while their seeds were still attached. A job well done and Wild Parsnip has now joined Ragwort and Creeping Thistle on the ‘Not Welcome Here’ list.

This plant, however, is very welcome here. It is Autumn Lady’s Tresses – an Orchid that seems to like it round these parts. Every year from August we have many hundreds of the little beauties growing in a close cropped turf area. The delicate individual flowers grow in a spiral up the stalk.

It seemed that everywhere else in the entire country had been having rain this week except for us on the east coast of Kent. However, on Wednesday evening, some finally fell.

The fall of rain, hopefully bringing worms up from the deep, hasn’t stopped the Badgers still being very interested in any bird seed that may be lurking in the cages up on the strip. In the photo below, there is a Badger actually in one of the cages:

One night, a Badger dislodged a cage such that it was sticking up a bit into the air:

Then, the next morning, a Feral Pigeon managed to squeeze under and become trapped. Funnily enough, we have never seen a Feral Pigeon here before – only ringed Racing Pigeons:

It was trapped in there for a couple of hours before we turned up and released it:

We hadn’t foreseen a set of circumstances that could result in a bird getting trapped in these cages and yet it happened. A salutary lesson learned that we should not leave them out if we are away.

At the end of a long night, some lounging around before bed:

The young Stock Dove, that hatched in the Kestrel box on 30th July, has now become a beautiful Dove

It will fledge before too long – I expect one day we will connect to the camera and the box will be empty. I hope to then see it on the cameras around the meadows, identifiable because it is almost certainly the only one that will be ringed.

It has been quiet here for the last few days but here are some of the more interesting photos from the week:

Finally today, I just wanted to have a small celebration of Yellowhammers. Two years ago we had no Yellowhammers in the meadows but now they are around so often on the cameras that our feathers have ceased to be ruffled by them. Around ten of them have been ringed here this year and I am still seeing unringed birds on the cameras. Furthermore, in the past few weeks some juveniles have been caught and ringed suggesting that there has been successful breeding here too and hopefully a little population of them has now been established – one of our big successes of the year. Here are some photos from this morning’s trail cameras – such a fantastic bird:

The Melting Days of Summer

This week we took a trip a few miles up the coast to Sandwich Bay.

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The reason for going was to see if the colony of the Bee Wolves that we found last year, dug into a sandy incline, were there again this year. We were pleased to see that they were:

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A Bee Wolf (Philanthus triangulum) by her tunnel

The Bee Wolf is one of the UK’s largest Solitary Wasps. A female will dig a burrow in the  sand that can be a metre long with up to 34 brood chambers coming off it. Then she goes out hunting to catch Honey Bee workers. When she gets one, she will paralyse it with a sting and carry it back to her burrow. Up to six paralysed Honey Bees are placed in each brood chamber and then a single egg is laid on one of the Bees and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the Bee Wolf larva will live on the cache of Honey Bees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate through the winter and hatch next spring.

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A Bee Wolf lands, carrying a paralysed Honey Bee below her. A bit difficult to make out, but the Bee is on its back with its eyes by the Wolf’s front legs
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The Wolf and the hapless Bee go off down the tunnel together

Since we were at Sandwich Bay at the end of a exhaustingly hot day, it would have been a shame not to have submerged ourselves in the deliciously cool water.

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The photo below, taken from a video, captures the moment when the smallest Badger cub was making for the hole under the fence but found the one-eyed vixen in its way. You just need to look at the little Badger’s whole body posture to see the difficulty it is having coping with this unexpected turn of events.

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Over the course of the video, the vixen moves off but the Badger stays rooted to the spot in shock. It is interesting how separate these two species keep themselves, given that they are living in very close proximity and both using this same hole under the fence into the meadows. You would think that they must rub up together so often that they become accustomed to it. I am also enjoying how good the one-eyed vixen looks these days, with her tail now bushing up nicely.

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Grooming session at 4.30am, preparing for bed

Halfway through August now and all seven Badgers still accounted for:

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However, with this hot, dry weather the soil is rock hard and the worms, that ideally would make up 70% of their diet, will have gone down deep and unreachable. I can tell the Badgers are hungry because several of them spend a lot of each night scouring the area around the cages on the strip trying to find any seed overlooked by the birds. A few seeds here and there are not going to keep a Badger going for long – we so desperately need some rain.

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Searching for overlooked seeds

Mind you, there are a lot of apple drops in the orchard that are not being eaten by anything and, if you were a hungry omnivore like a Badger, I would have thought you would have eaten those.

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As the temperatures soared this week, we had Raptors coming to the ponds for a drink and a bath.

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Male Sparrowhawk on the strip
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Just four minutes later, this female Kestrel arrived in the same spot
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And a lovely male Kestrel as well with his grey head
We don’t see males so often

Although the wood is generally in the shade, the air temperature was very high there too  – hot enough to bring the Tawny Owls in for a bath at night:

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Female Sparrowhawk in the wood
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Green Woodpeckers are very enthusiastic users of any watering hole and here is a speckled juvenile drinking in the meadows:

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We have been seeing some additional fledglings around this week:

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Two young Greenfinch, with their mother at the back
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Three Goldfinch young (no red on their heads) with their mother
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Spotty Herring Gull juvenile at the back
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I love to see the normally bully-boy Magpies put on the back foot
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The Magpie is out-numbered

As I was meandering around the wood, I disturbed a group of about six Wrens from a Silver Birch coppice stool. I presume that this was a group of fledglings and how lovely was that. Two days later, they were all there again in more or less the same place. This time I managed to get a photo of one of the youngsters:

One of the cameras in the wood captured this Fox with prey – this looks like a pair of bunny back legs to me?

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There is an open area in the new part of the wood that is carpeted with Marjoram and, at this time of year with the Marjoram in flower, it is absolutely alive with bees and other insect life.

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We are going to remove some of the encroaching Rosebay Willowherb, Dogwood and Silver Birch saplings this autumn to ensure that this area remains open and filled with prolific Marjoram growth. A Green-veined White Butterfly was enjoying the nectar in this area:

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Although every year in the meadows we see 23 species of Butterflies, we have never seen a Green-veined White – yet it is one of the UK’s most widespread and common Butterflies. However, damp lush vegetation is an essential requirement for it and nothing about the meadows is damp, lying as they do on free-draining chalk.

We have also never seen one of these Butterflies below in the meadows. The Bird Ringer snapped it on his phone this week at the nearby Lyddon and Temple Ewell nature reserve:

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This is the Silver-spotted Skipper, a rare Skipper found on chalk downlands in parts of southern Britain. However, a grazing regime is critical since it can only survive in really closely cropped turf with bare patches of earth. We do not want the responsibility of having grazing animals here and so we have to therefore also accept that we will never have the delights of Silver-spotted Skippers.

You might not recognise our Stock Dove squab – what a difference a week has made. Here it is when it was ringed last Friday:

And here it is this Friday, just seven days later:

For a few days after the egg hatched, one of the parents stayed with the chick most of the time. But then they went off and this young bird is now alone almost always. Stock Doves spend a lonely childhood, we have discovered, although there are usually two eggs laid. However, there is no doubt that it is being well fed and growing quickly. When a parent comes in to feed the chick, it first of all lands elsewhere in the tree and takes its time looking around for danger before it hops into the box.

Just as I was about to publish this post today, I went through the day’s cameras which included several photos of this bird up on the strip:

Fortuitously the Bird Ringers are here this morning because I had no idea what this bird was although I suspected that it was something interesting. It turns out that it is a Whinchat – species number 78 on the meadows bird list. This is a young bird, on its way to West Africa, south of the Sahara. The Bird Ringers would have loved to have caught and ringed this bird.

One day this week, we had several fly-bys by this RAF aeroplane, an A400 Atlas. It was so noisy that it was impossible not to stop what you were doing and give it your full attention as it went past.

This plane had flown here from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to assist the Border Force and spend the day patrolling for migrant boats coming across from France

It was quite a spectacle but we are pleased that she has now returned to her other duties elsewhere.

It has now been announced that, as of today, people arriving here from France are once again going to have to quarantine themselves. To mark this sad development and all that it implies about the current Covid situation in France, we are now flying their tricolour as a gesture of support.